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Associated Press
7/7/2006 3:57:16 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Darcy Regier wasn't kidding when he predicted the Buffalo Sabres' payroll would rise this off-season.

One week into free agency, the Sabres general manager has already spent a little over $5.8 million US from next season's budget to re-sign Teppo Numminen and add Jaroslav Spacek.

The total committed to both defencemen for next year - Numminen will make $2.6 million and Spacek $3.225 million as part of a $10-million, three-year deal - is $2 million short of what the team paid its top six blue-liners last season. And it also represents almost a fifth of Buffalo's $29-million payroll in 2005-06.

That overall payroll is almost certain to rise because the Sabres have a busy summer ahead, with only five regulars currently under contract and 12 players who opted this week for salary arbitration.

The good news is that the players choosing arbitration will have their contracts settled for next season, eliminating the chance of contract disputes. On the downside, it's uncertain how much of a raise each will receive.

And that's why Regier, on several occasions in the past few weeks, said he was budgeting for an increase to keep intact the core of a team that is coming off a strong season.

Buffalo won a franchise record 52 games and had its playoff run end with a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference final to eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina.

"I have a sense that it's going to move up a few million dollars," Regier said recently, referring to his budget. "Whether it's four or five or six, I don't have an exact number."

The group of Sabres players heading for arbitration - the hearings are scheduled to run from July 20 to Aug. 4 - includes co-captain Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov, who's coming off a career year after leading the team with 73 points (22 goals, 51 assists) last season.

The group also includes Brian Campbell, who is also coming off a career year in which he led Buffalo's defencemen with 44 points (12 goals, 32 assists), and Henrik Tallinder, who emerged as a top-four blue-liner.
Although it's difficult to judge what raises the players will receive, it's evident that Afinogenov, who made a little over $1 million last year, Campbell ($459,900) and Tallinder ($591,800) are in for significant increases based on their contributions last season.

Buffalo can continue negotiating with players prior to their arbitration hearings, although, any new deals struck would include pay raises.

Arbitration awards in the recent past have ranged from modest to significant. Former Washington defenceman Brendan Witt was awarded a $500,000 raise in August 2004 while forward Milan Hejduk had his salary jump from $3.2 million to $5.7 million.

Buffalo had two arbitration cases in 2004, with Briere receiving a $950,000 raise and goaltender Martin Biron's salary boosted by $600,000. Those increases were negated by an across-the-board 24 per cent pay-cut following the lockout that wiped the 2004-05 season.

But salaries are back on the rise, especially with the NHL's cap increasing to $44 million from $39 million last season.

This off-season, the Sabres have saved themselves nearly $3 million with the loss of two free agents, defenceman Jay McKee, who signed with St. Louis, and forward Mike Grier, now with San Jose.

Buffalo could add to those savings by seeking to trade Biron, whose qualifying offer is $2.128 million, a number deemed too expensive for a backup after he lost the starter's job to Ryan Miller. But not all of Biron's salary would be saved because the Sabres would still have to secure Biron's replacement through a trade or free agency.

The Sabres are also negotiating a long-term contract with Miller, who will command a significant raise after making a mere $501,600. Miller had a stellar year in which he went 30-14-3 in the regular season and 11-7 in the playoffs.
 
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